I’m back from my hiatus! And trust me when I say I will definitely be making up for lost time. I picked up 5 different coffees from 5 different roasters during my time in New York and Seattle and I can’t wait to review them all.
I have not talked about Starbucks very much on this blog, but while I was in Seattle, I thought it only proper to pay a visit to the enormous building that houses the Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room (opened December 2014). This isn’t simply a big Starbucks coffee house. Read more about it here.
Whether you love or hate Starbucks, I think every java drinker in the United States owes Starbucks a debt of gratitude for helping to elevate the coffee culture in this country. Yes, I know that Alfred Peet of Peet’s Coffee was the guy that taught the Starbucks founders how to roast, but do you remember what the coffee scene was like before Starbucks infiltrated its way into our collective consciousness? (I am too young to really remember a time before Starbucks, so please, comment and enlighten me!) My guess is that most “to-go” coffee was purchased from places like gas stations which had glass pots on hot plates for hours on end, or perhaps consumed at diners and cafeterias and McDonald’s and anywhere else that served brown liquid, probably from pre-ground wholesale foodservice coffee beans (maybe arabica, maybe robusta) that hadn’t been fresh since the Nixon administration. True, you probably could get decent coffee back in the 1980s if you lived in Seattle or San Francisco, but what about if you lived in Kansas City? Ocala? Fargo? On long road trips, you were at the mercy of whatever greasy spoon diner you came across if you needed a cup of joe to keep you awake.
Starbucks changed all of that.
Though I don’t regularly frequent Starbucks coffee shops, it is for the appreciation of the role they have played in the evolution of coffee culture in the USA that I decided to visit this Willy Wonka-esque laboratory of coffee. I knew it would be big, but I wasn’t really prepared for the scope of the place until I saw it take up practically a whole city block:
Walking into the building was sensory overload — I couldn’t figure out where to look as there was SO much to see. My pictures aren’t the greatest, but I’m hoping they’ll be able to show at least a little bit of the scope of the place.
This panorama is courtesy of Shutterbug. Thanks, sweetie!
Here’s my view immediately upon walking in:
You could order coffee in pretty much any format you wanted. There were siphon pots. There were Clover machines. There were Chemexes. There were single-serve pourovers. (I don’t think Frappuccinos were an option, though.)
Is anyone else reminded of the hourglasses at Hogwarts?
They have a library dedicated to the history of coffee!
However, since I only had eyes for espresso during my visit, I eventually meandered to the back of the store at the low bar where they had 4 different espresso beans offered that day, each with its own Nuova Simonelli grinder. The friendly barista offered me a drink menu on a mini-clipboard (no chalkboard or suspended signs here for you to get a crick in your neck), and I opted for the espresso flight, which is a sampler of two espressos. Since I was uncertain about what I should choose, he recommended I try two espressos very different in character, so he suggested the Gravitas blend for a dark, moody espresso and the Tanzania for a bright, HAPPY! espresso. I had to put HAPPY! in all caps because it was how he said it.
The espresso was ground to order, and tamped by hand. I’ve never seen anything like this espresso machine before; I thought it was a faucet. And I suppose in a way, it is… espresso machines are hot water delivery systems at heart, after all.
Note the porcelain cups and the sparkling water, served as a palate cleanser. Nice touch, Starbucks!
I went back and forth between the Gravitas and the Tanzania a number of times, with sparkling water in between tastings. They were definitely different; my barista was not wrong about the characters. I wanted to like them, and I went into this optimistically. However…, as much as I wanted to like both of these espressos, I really didn’t like either. The Gravitas was bitter to my taste and didn’t taste markedly different from the espressos served at normal Starbucks locations. The Tanzania was sour and brash. Neither cup had much in the way of crema, and the cups did not seem to be preheated, which does affect the flavor of the final product. If I had to guess, I would say the beans either weren’t as fresh as they needed to be, the grind was not dialed in quite right, or the extraction temperature was off for that particular bean.
Speaking of bean freshness…
There were lots of bags of Starbucks Reserve coffees for sale, from places like Brazil and Ethiopia and Papa New Guinea, purportedly roasted on the premises. I mean, that’s why they have that huge roaster there, right? I expected these bags to be very fresh. However, my heart sank when I picked up a bag of Ethiopia Kochere and saw the dreaded, “Best by” label. Not a ROAST date but a BEST BY date. The date was 11/28/15. Hmmm. That’s nearly 6 months from now. I flagged down an employee and asked him if there was any way to find out when exactly the bagged beans had been roasted, and he left to go inquire with management (not a great sign!). When he came back, he informed me that there was no way to know the precise date, but he was able to guarantee that the beans were fully finished degassing so that wouldn’t be a problem.
Degassing is GOOD. It’s a sign of freshness. Hardly a problem!! Degassing is the most active within 48 hours after roast, but the coffee beans will continue degassing for almost two weeks or possibly more after roast, and the amount of degassing is proportional to the age of the beans; the older the beans get, the slower the degassing process gets until it stops altogether and the beans are no longer fresh. You know how fresh bags of coffee beans inflate and you squeeze them and release the air out of that one-way valve and it smells amazing? That’s what Starbucks is robbing from us by selling bags of beans that are “guaranteed to be fully degassed,” aka “stale.”
My personal rule is twofold: 1) Don’t buy beans older than 2 weeks post roast; preferably just a few days post roast, and 2) Don’t buy beans that don’t have a roast date on the bag. Starbucks failed to meet both of these criteria, so I left empty-handed, despite my intention to take some home!
So. Was it good? It was worth visiting. The sheer size and spectacle of the place was astonishing. Copper everywhere. It was a beautiful space. The employees were helpful and seemed happy. You could even get a gourmet pizza from Tom Douglas’ Serious Pie in the same space (just behind the retail area with all the mugs and french presses and such). Did I enjoy the espresso? No. Even though the shot was pulled by hand, I still don’t think it was pulled in a way to bring out the full potential of the (possibly less-than-fresh) beans. Perhaps I might have enjoyed a siphon pot of single-origin coffee more, but the fact that they couldn’t tell me when most of the coffee in the store was roasted was a huge red flag to me. Points for trying, though.
Goodbye, Seattle. We will meet again. <3